There are times when my friends get alarmed at my lack of interest in masculine pursuits. Once in a while there’s a moment when one has to pass a little test. Like the other evening, a friend got very concerned that I took such little pleasure in the Royal Enfield. He wanted to see if I could at least pull the heavy bike back on its stand, which I did effortlessly, surprising both of us. We heaved a collective sigh of relief.
Growing up I had a doll called Mishka, whom I put to bed every night singing a lullaby. My mother had even made me a little pillow for her. When her clothes got grubby my mother made a new pair. At some point, I lost interest in the doll and got fascinated by a red plastic gun that my uncle bought me. As I grew older I lost interest in that and got obsessed with carpentry and electricity. I’d plane and saw blocks of wood, dissemble plugs and switch boards and even put together a homemade torch following instructions in Tinkle magazine.
I was lucky in that my parents didn’t force any gender-specific toys or roles on me. As one grows one picks up things at random and discards them quickly. It’s harmless play.
When I went to England in my twenties, I came back to India not having noticed a single car in London, apart from the Mini Cooper and the famous black cabs. I just didn’t see them. I own gadgets but I’m not excessively nerdy about them. With any gadget I use only its basic features—I don’t optimise the gadget, I don’t mine the depths of its soul.
There are other activities and objects that men fetishize, and which leave me cold. I used to be into belts, not anymore. I used to be into action films but not anymore. I like romcoms because they are so innocent and full of hope. I like drama because it’s about human nature. I don’t talk to my male friends about this because it’s their blind spot.
I like simple old wrist watches. I’m not into sunglasses. I like long walks, bicycling or swimming laps. I don’t dig competitive sports that much. God, does this sound like the diary of a wimpy kid? I’d think these days, with more fluidity regarding gender roles or characteristics, one can be what one’s individual temperament dictates, rather than follow rigid pre-conceived ideas of what a man is or a woman is supposed to be.
Masculinity looks different in different parts of the world. In America, it’s linked with fishing trips and guns. In India, I’ve noticed it’s to do with cooking mutton. Indian men cook, but only mutton. Rarely have I been fed masoor dal and tori sabzi made by a male friend.
As a heavy reader, I often find myself running out of conversation with men. Statistically, men are less likely to read fiction and poetry and more likely to read the literature that comes with a gadget.
Some men, though, have not been afraid to be a different kind of man. It gives me great solace that David Sedaris worked as a professional cleaner before he became a famous writer. I love cleaning myself. If you peek in through the windows of my house, you’ll see me with a vacuum cleaner and three kinds of brooms, a dusting cloth on my shoulder.
In ‘I’m A Man’, Jarvis Cocker made his stance fairly clear: ‘Your car can get up to a hundred and ten/ You’ve nowhere to go but you’ll go there again/ Oh, if that’s all there is then there’s no point for me.’ Or as Blur put it: ‘She likes a man in uniform/ He likes to wear it tight/ Yes, they’re stereotypes/ There must be more to life.’
The Lemonheads put it in even clearer terms when they sang: ‘I can’t go with you on a rock climbing weekend/ What if there’s something on TV and they never show it again/ I’ve never set foot inside a tent/ Can’t build a fire to save my life/ I lied about being the outdoor type.’
(The writer is the editor of House Spirit: Drinking in India, published by Speaking Tiger)